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Irene Kelley takes the "Simple Path"

By Clarissa Sansone, October 2001

It's not too far-fetched to surmise that there are times when art reflects the nature of the artist herself. Over the phone, Irene Kelley's voice is quiet, slightly sweet, yet self-assured; her answers are brief yet never tentative. She puts across the impression, albeit modestly, that she knows what she is about.

And such are the 11 songs Kelley co-wrote on her album "Simple Path": direct but unassuming, resonant without being verbose. The music that accompanies the lyrics - straight country with a tuft or two of bluegrass tossed in - is neither raw and edgy nor overly polished, which fits the unfrilled wisdom of the songs.

Sing Out! magazine described Kelley as "a tiny woman with a big voice who knows how to write a country hit."

Until recently, it had been her "country hits" that made her known, while her "big voice" patiently held its peace.

"I have been writing songs for aboutÉ16 years," says the Latrobe, Pa. native, who now lives in Nashville. After shopping around an early effort titled "Pennsylvania Is My Home," which came close to being named Pennsylvania's state song, she got the attention of Gordon Payne, who was at CBS Records. Payne invited Kelley to Nash-ville to cut a demo, which led to her official career as a songwriter.

Kelley and her husband moved to Nashville in 1983. Within a few years, Kelley saw her work recorded by Carl Jackson ("You Are a Rock and I Am a Rolling Stone") and Ricky Skaggs with Sharon White (their duet "Love Can't Ever Get Better Than This").

Loretta Lynn covered "Hold Her," a song Kelley co-wrote with Don Wayne. Her work with Wayne, who was the songwriter behind Cal Smith's "Country Bumpkin" and Lefty Frizzell's "Saginaw, Michigan," was significant to Kelley. She not only refers to him as "one of my heroes," but cites "Country Bumpkin" as a song that "kind of converted" her to country songwriting.

It proved a wise conversion, as several performers would attest. Bluegrass singers Rhonda Vincent and Dale Ann Bradley have covered Kelley's songs. Claire Lynch, a frequent co-writer with Kelley, has recorded three of their collaborative efforts. (Two of Kelley's songs on "Simple Path" - "Scorns of Time" and "Jealousy" - were, in turn, written with Lynch.) Kelley says that, as songwriters, she and Lynch are "digging from the same dirt," and fertile soil it is.

Mainstream country singer Trisha Yearwood has not only recorded Kelley's work, but also asked the songwriter to open for her.

Yearwood had already covered "O Mexico" (which Kelley visits on "Simple Path") before meeting its writer. Then Yearwood decided to record "Second Chance" after hearing a demo of it. The song, originally written for the television series "Once and Again," appears on Yearwood's newest release, "Inside Out."

"The verdict on that song is still out," comments Kelley. "We're hoping we get something big out of that."

Regardless of whether that happens, Kelley's previous successes have already given her clout in Nashville.

"I've always been a songwriter that had a pretty high profile," she states. "They've accepted me as a songwriter," she says of Nashville's music community. Having well-known performers regularly record her songs "keeps my name out there," she says.

Convincing that same community of her merit as a performer, however, has proven more difficult. "I always wanted to have product out...a piece of work of my own," Kelley says.

In 1989, she cut a record with MCA - it was never released, even though two of its singles met with some success. She made other attempts to sign with a label.

"You cut a few sides with a producer and then...you try to get a label interested," Kelley says of the process. If a label isn't interested, then an artist is left with four or five songs - orphans without an album.

More significantly, she adds, the songs "represented the producer more than they did me."

As the saying goes, if you want a job done right, do it yourself. A couple of years ago, Kelley got together with Scott Neubert as a producer to put together a project where "we didn't have any requirements," and where she and Neubert had creative freedom.

"Simple Path," originally self-released by Kelley, was "a song-driven project"; it didn't have the restraints of being "genre-focused," so she was free to explore bluegrass, honky tonk and pop on the same album.

"These are the songs I wanted to record," Kelley simply says. "This is how I wanted them to sound."

In addition to picking a crop of mature, somewhat spare songs, Kelley got some first-rate musicians to back her up. "Some of these guys were in my band," she says, and some had played on recording demos. Kelley has played with fiddler Aubrey Haynie at Nashville's Station Inn, and she has previously worked with upright bassist Viktor Krauss. Other musicians include Brent Truitt on mandolin, Kelley co-writers Lynch and Kim Patton-Johnston on harmony vocals, and Neubert on dobro and lap steel.

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